Vows, commitments and modern life: Gathering a circle of followers

Downfalls that obstruct the perfection of effort

Gathering a circle of followers out of desire for profit or respect. 

If, for selfish reasons, we try to gather followers we incur a secondary downfall.

This is actually a very difficult vow for us.  On the one hand, it implies that we are supposed to gather a circle of followers.  This makes sense because we are trying to attain enlightenment so that we can lead others to the same state.  But to actively seek to gather a circle of followers seems to us like proselytizing and unbelievably arrogant, so we don’t quite know how to generate the wish to gather a circle of followers without it seeming weird and deluded.  It is obviously incredibly unskillful to get on top of our soapbox and try gather people up.  So how can we understand this desire?

Perhaps some examples can help us get a feel for this.  If we bake some really good chocolate chip cookies, we naturally want to share them with our kids because they are so good.  We are happy to share them with others.  When we discover some new way of doing things that really works and we see others struggling with the same problem, we naturally want to share with them our strategy so that it is easier for them.  When we succeed in accomplishing something and we see others trying to do the same, we are happy to share our experience with them to help them along.  It is the same with the Dharma.  All of these examples contain two key ingredients:  (1) an appreciation of the value of what we have, and (2) others who from their own side already want but don’t have what we have to share.  If we don’t ourselves appreciate the value of what we have and others don’t want what we have, then it is inappropriate to try gather people to share it.  But if we do have such an appreciation and others do want what we have, then it is entirely natural to want to share it with them. 

So how do we actually gather such a circle?  Obviously, if we belong to a Dharma center, regardless of whether or not we are the teacher of that center, we naturally want the center to grow and for more and more students to come to the center.  There is nothing wrong with this.  When we have something special, we naturally want to share it with others.  If we see the value of what the center has to offer ourselves, then we will naturally want others to also benefit from it.  So we will do things like help with publicity or we will tell some of our friends or relatives about the center if we think they might be open to it. But the best thing we can do is create a loving, open, fun and accepting atmosphere at the center.  If the culture of the center is like this, then people will naturally, from their own side, want to stay.  So we really don’t need to do anything other than actually practice what we have been taught with the other people at the center.  When new people come, we don’t jump on them and try convert them, we just be friendly and open and let them discover things.  It is better to offer them tea and cookies than Dharma advice.  We wait for them to ask questions before we start giving them answers. 

Outside of a Dharma center, we can recall the story of Venerable Tharchin I mentioned in a previous post, where Geshe-la said if he didn’t come out of retreat he would be a worthless Buddha because he didn’t have karmic relationships with living beings.  Our ability to help anybody depends upon our karmic relationship with them.  From a practical level this is obvious, if you don’t have any connection with somebody how can you help them?  Also, we see every day that we are able to more easily help those we are close to than those we hardly know or interact with. 

At a deeper, unseen level, the only way we can actually help people is through them receiving blessings of the Buddhas.  Geshe-la explains that living beings are basically incapable of generating a virtuous mind on their own.  Due to our past of having spent virtually all of our previous lives in the lower realms engaging only in negativity, the overwhelming gradient in our mind is towards the negative.  We see this every day.  It is much easier to get angry at somebody than it is to do something nice to them without expecting anything in return.  This is where Buddha’s blessings come in.  Buddhas have the power to activate positive karmic potentialities on the minds of living beings.  They can find that needle in the karmic haystack of negative tendencies and ripen it.  Once it ripens, we then are far more likely to engage in virtuous actions, which plants more positive seeds, which can then be ripened as well, gradually building up karmic momentum like a spiritual locomotive until eventually it becomes more natural for us to engage in virtue and it actually becomes hard to engage in negativity. 

We may ask, if Buddhas have the power to start such virtuous karmic cycles in the minds of living beings, why aren’t they doing it to everyone every day.  The short answer is they are doing the best they can, but from our own side we haven’t created the causes and conditions for them to do so.  It may be bright and sunny outside, but if all of our windows are sealed shut, very little light can creep into our room. And this is where our karmic connections with living beings come in. 

Karmic connections are like invisible karmic fiber optic cables through which the light of the Buddha’s blessings can pass.  Because we are practitioners, we are actively trying to open up our windows to the light.  So light is flowing into us.  Then, through the karmic connections we create with others, this light can then flow out to others.  The more karmic connections we have with others, the more bandwidth our cables have, and the more light of blessings flow through.  It is for this reason that Venerable Tharchin said, “for every step we take towards enlightenment, we bring all living beings with us in proportion to the karmic connection we have with them.” 

Interestingly, apparently bad karmic connections with others is better than no karmic connections at all.  There are two stories which illustrate this point.  The first is (if I recall the story correctly, perhaps some scholar can help me get the story right), Buddhas first five disciples were actually beings in the past who had engaged in some serious negativity towards a previous incarnation of Buddha.  There is another story of a yogi who really wanted to help some local farmer, but the yogi and the farmer had no connection at all.  No matter what the yogi tried, nothing worked.  So the yogi came up with an idea – he went into the farmers field and smashed all of his crops.  That got the farmer’s attention and he came out saying he would kill the yogi who was running off gleefully.  The yogi knew that now, once the negative karma between him and the farmer had exhausted itself the yogi would have a close karmic connection through which he could help.  This doesn’t mean we should go around and intentionally destroy people’s work to create karma with them, but it does illustrate the power and importance of karmic connections.

Regardless of whether or not we are currently a teacher, we are all aspiring Bodhisattvas.  As such, we need a vast web of karmic relationships with as many beings as possible.  It is through this web of karmic relationships that we will eventually be able to lead everyone to enlightenment.  How do we build such karmic relationships?  By cherishing others, serving them, helping them and caring for them in every way possible.  We can also pray for others.  No matter what is happening, we can always pray for others.  Even when we ourselves are sick in the hospital dying, nothing can stop us from praying for others.

 

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